đź’€ Necro Help with a setting: Alien Sentient Corporation

Troy Swain

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I need help!

I’m going to be running a street-level occult-underground horror/conspiracy game where I think the protagonists will be primarily on the run. My final big bad will be a sentient corporation. It will be an extremely alien intelligence. Also, the sentient corporation’s body is composed of people/employees/contract-laborers, and the corporation has no independent body of its own. The sentient corporation’s employees are simply doing their proscribed corporate job, and most of them will just be normal Janes and Joes, with only a few “in on the conspiracy.” A sentient corporation is near impossible to defeat, but it’s not a Great Old One, even though it will have massive amounts of real world resources at its fingertips, but not as much as a wealthy nation. It can surreptitiously hire the bosses and minions that go after the players and make their lives a living hell.

I’m thinking a less powerful version of an AI like William Gibson’s Wintermute or Neuromancer, along with a sentient version of the documentary Corporation, or a less-powered version Grant Morrison’s super-antagonist, Haxan: The Living Corporation. The general campaign feel will (hopefully) be a more mundane version of China Meville’s Kraken, a more plot driven Thomas Pynchon, the killer Channel 4 TV show Utopia, and the movie Six Days of the Condor, crossed with the insanity of Unknown Armies and the horror of Call of Cthulhu.

To make things weirder, I think my Living Corporation™ will be a ghost corporation. That is, a corporation that has lost all of it’s resources, but was not decharterd. Like IG Farben. But more about that in a follow-up post. So I guess it’s more a Sentient Ghost Corporation™.

So… What’s the hook to drag in the characters? A shocking bio-based computer? A damning WikiLeaks-style info dump? Proof that there’s a Sentient Ghost Corporation™? Something innocuous but with magic powers (like a Cubicle for the Grey and the Damned, or a possessed Aeron chair, or an old 3.5” floppy disk you can put in your mouth or butt, or an ultra powerful non-working gnawed-on pen)?

So the players' characters will be on the run, and fast, but how can the players go up against a Living Corporation™? How do you wipe out a ghost version? What do the characters get to hit, other than underlings, goons, and the occasional minor boss?

Can the Sentient Ghost Corporation™ control other corporations? If so, how? A corporation uses humans as its mouthpiece. It need humans to act as its collective brain, mouth, and fists, but if there are no people in the corporation, how does it operate? Is it clued in to the occult underground? Is it “focused” or summoned by a cult? Perhaps it is focused or summoned by the new “Cult of the Free Market, the Neo-liberal Knights of the Austrians”? Maybe it just influences corporations and doesn’t want them to wake up? Or maybe it subtly twists corporations into a half-awake semi-sentience? Are any other corporations sentient? Are they battling, Kaiju style? Or will they? How would AIs effect all of this?

And how to do real-life Big Bads fit in? Where, in this mess, do the big banks fit in, like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs (who have so tantalizingly been described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”)? What about the pharmaceuticals? If I use IG Farben, then does it still have connections to its former subsidiaries, Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, and Agfa? And big oil? OPEC? If I use IG Farben, then what about the other big corporations involved in WWII, like IBM, or the “Big Four zaibatsu” like Mitsubishi? Are there any former Nazis, employees, or IG Farben antagonists who are still alive, or who still know what’s up? What about other nations? Governments? Who knows about this? Are any plutocrats, Nazis, or their opponents still around and outside of the Living Corporation’s control?

Who are the minor bosses? What type of people can the Sentient Ghost Corporation™ hire? How does it have money or a bank account?
 
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Snoof

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To make things weirder, I think my Living Corporation™ will be a ghost corporation. That is, a corporation that has lost all of it’s resources, but was not decharterd. Like IG Farben. But more about that in a follow-up post. So I guess it’s more a Sentient Ghost Corporation™.
This bit doesn't seem to mesh with the rest of what you're written. If it's a ghost corporation, without assets, it's going to be as weak and helpless as a human without body or mind: a pathetic insubstantial thing, a fragment of memory and identity without any force or substance behind it.

You could run with that, of course - maybe it's a ghost in the machine, appearing in quarterly reports and getting CC'd on emails, trying to reconstitute itself by convincing some foolish or greedy human (or other corporation) to allow it in - but it doesn't strike me as a long-term antagonist.
 

Troy Swain

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If corporations are people, they are people with no emotion, empathy, ethics, or morals. And they are (also legally) tightly constrained by their one goal: to maximize profits, period. But a sentient corporation might not be so constrained. A sentient corporation would recognize that its body is composed of people, and although people are replaceable, the corporation can’t allow them all to die, or their world to die, or it will die. So my Living Corporation™ is trying very hard to initiate a type of transhumanism. The corporation also might need other corporations to wake up (I’m not sure), but I think it also needs to prevent actual AIs from awakening, since they won’t necessarily need humanity or the Living Corporation™. If The Living Corporation™ plays everything right, then it will become a super-organism composed of people, in the same way that people are a body composed of cells. Humanity will eventually be subsumed into cells for a New Corporate Order, literally. Basically, think of the corporation as a giant mecha, but where the robot is in charge of the riders, not the other way around, which is how things roughly are right now.

We’ll be playing either in the 90s or the current day (TBD by the payers this Monday). I think the big bad might be IG Farben, which, other than United Fruit Company, is my favorite real life evil corporation. But quickly, this is all based on the real history behind “corporate personhood,” which is important to what I want, so…

In the U.S. in 1886, a court reporter, Bancroft Davis, not a lawyer or a judge, stated in the headnote to the judge’s opinion (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad), "We are all of the opinion that the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids a State to deny any person the equal protection of the laws, applies to corporations." Despite being written by a court reporter, and despite not being part of the legal opinion, two years later, in 1888, the Court affirmed the doctrine by citing the headnote as precedent. (100% true story!) This doctrine has been reaffirmed by the Court many times since. And that is the basis for the U.S. legal framework of “corporate personhood.”

United Fruit Comapny is a great antagonist, but IG Farben is a NAZI VILLAIN! Also, IG Farben makes weird sense as a creepy occult antagonist. I’ll explain: IG Farben was a German conglomerate that made Zyklon B, the gas used during the Holocaust (they also made and _invented_ tons of plastics, rockets, pharmaceuticals, and basically anything chemically based). After WWII, IG Farben was brought up for war crimes. IG farben was convicted in 1948, and although the corporation was liquidated and all of its assets were seized, it was not dechartered, so it still officially exists today as a ghost corporation.

So my thought is that Bancroft Davis, the U.S. court reporter behind corporate personhood, was a mage working under The Zodiac Club (a real club that included J.P. Morgan), who believed that mankind needed a new pantheon to worship and follow. (“Come now old boy, just look at the raging masses, ungrateful and aggressive. Of course they need to be governed and corralled.”) The Zodiac Club devised a massive spell that would grant sentience to corporations, which would be under their control. Corporations have life spans, but can live as long as nations, and can, according to The Zodiac Club, lead mankind to progress and destiny. Corporations, unlike nations, are enthrall to the Captains of Industry, and are not enthrall to the hoi polloi / the great unwashed masses (who in 1880s are pushing hard for basic labor reforms, like no child labor, safer working conditions, a ten hour work day, and a six day work week). Davis initiated The Cult of the New Kings spell by slipping it into the court opinion.

This Cult of the New Kings spell required a massive blood sacrifice. The Zodiac Club and Bancroft Davis thought that The Great War would provide their blood sacrifice but after The Great War ended they thought their spell had failed. However, they were wrong. The Great War/WWI was still about kingdoms and empires. But WWII definitively involved corporations, and after many abortive attempts, IG Farben finally gained consciousness on August 6, 1945 (hello, Thule Society!). However, after the war, IG Farben went to trial for war crimes. The corporation was liquidated but not dechartered, so IG Farben still exists as a ghost corporation with no material assets (those last two sentences are more 100% true story!). How Hellboy is that?

Out of IG Farben sprang Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, and Agfa, and all employed Nazis after the war. They all still exist and they’re all still powerful.

So IG Farben, this Nazi ghost corporation is still working behind the scenes, trying to push for a transhumanist belief system, and trying to awaken various stable corporations. So far only the United Fruit Company was close to sentient, but after many scandals and the suicide of UFCo’s CEO, they were taken over and turned into Chiquita Brands in 1985. And although the UFCo is still getting busted for craziness like aiding and abetting terrorists, they’re a long way away from their former glory days of massively influencing US policy, overthrowing countries, and controlling all of Central America and a good chunk of South America.
 

Troy Swain

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You could run with that, of course - maybe it's a ghost in the machine, appearing in quarterly reports and getting CC'd on emails, trying to reconstitute itself by convincing some foolish or greedy human (or other corporation) to allow it in - but it doesn't strike me as a long-term antagonist.
It took me awhile to write the rest, but basically it's a shift from when I started writing to when I finished writing. I keep thinking IG Farben is my antagonist. It's a great villain, and it's the only corporation ever to be brought up on war crimes, but all of its assets were stripped, even though it still exists as a corporation.
 

darthmal

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I'm not sure if you're going for a sci-fi or fantasy-horror vibe here, to me the question is "What is making the decisions?"

An AI running a corporation is a cool idea, however corps have to be owned by humans - so either the AI has complete control over someone, somehow or it has concocted an elaborate financial structure so that it effectively owns itself. The trouble with this is that either method is extremely illegal - once uncovered, your corporation is toast - and if it's an AI the players can simply put some bullets in its CPU, or more likely have it shipped off to a secret government lab for study.

The fantasy route may have more potential - perhaps the corporation's executive have actually formed some kind of hive mind controlled by something beyond human understanding - a cross between Wolfram & Hart and From Beyond. They think they're just maximising shareholder value, but actually the corporation is taking control of humanity by buying up controlling interests in key assets. For bonus points it should have some sort of ulterior goal - like eugenics or the creation of a new controlling class.

As for how to draw in the PCs - the corp has superior intelligence, so and easy way for it to make money is to create some superscience gadget and sell it as a revolutionary new product. If you want corny 1980's movie style this would be a toy that possesses children and makes them nag their parents into buying more stuff, but it could just as easily be GM food or a streaming video service with added mind control signals. Of course this would be done through a shell company, so the PCs will have to dig their way though layers of clues and mooks to find out about the real big bad.
 

Snoof

Time-Travelling Layabout
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An AI running a corporation is a cool idea, however corps have to be owned by humans - so either the AI has complete control over someone, somehow or it has concocted an elaborate financial structure so that it effectively owns itself. The trouble with this is that either method is extremely illegal - once uncovered, your corporation is toast - and if it's an AI the players can simply put some bullets in its CPU, or more likely have it shipped off to a secret government lab for study.

The fantasy route may have more potential - perhaps the corporation's executive have actually formed some kind of hive mind controlled by something beyond human understanding - a cross between Wolfram & Hart and From Beyond. They think they're just maximising shareholder value, but actually the corporation is taking control of humanity by buying up controlling interests in key assets. For bonus points it should have some sort of ulterior goal - like eugenics or the creation of a new controlling class.
I think it's a bit more abstract than that. The corporation itself is sentient. It's kind of like asking "which neuron is intelligent?" - none of them are, intelligence emerges from the interactions of the neurons and the environment.

You see something very similar in ant colonies. Individual ants are very, very limited, with basically a few preprogrammed responses to various pheromones. Nonetheless, the colony as a whole can perform quite complicated tasks, including massed warfare, agriculture, threat response and construction.
 

Ito Saith Webb

A Fantasy Illustrator
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I think the hook could be that the PCs accidentally stumble upon the existence of the AI and know it is out to get them to keep that secret hidden. Things like their bank accounts freezing. Traffic light always turning red on them or suddenly green for the other side as they cross. Finding they are suddenly on the FBI's most wanted list with fraudulent charges.
 

Troy Swain

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I think it's a bit more abstract than that. The corporation itself is sentient. It's kind of like asking "which neuron is intelligent?" - none of them are, intelligence emerges from the interactions of the neurons and the environment.

You see something very similar in ant colonies. Individual ants are very, very limited, with basically a few preprogrammed responses to various pheromones. Nonetheless, the colony as a whole can perform quite complicated tasks, including massed warfare, agriculture, threat response and construction.
Yeah, exactly this. Of course, we're adding the supernatural, but still...

I'm not sure if you're going for a sci-fi or fantasy-horror vibe here, to me the question is "What is making the decisions?"

An AI running a corporation is a cool idea, however corps have to be owned by humans - so either the AI has complete control over someone, somehow or it has concocted an elaborate financial structure so that it effectively owns itself. The trouble with this is that either method is extremely illegal - once uncovered, your corporation is toast - and if it's an AI the players can simply put some bullets in its CPU, or more likely have it shipped off to a secret government lab for study.

The fantasy route may have more potential - perhaps the corporation's executive have actually formed some kind of hive mind controlled by something beyond human understanding - a cross between Wolfram & Hart and From Beyond. They think they're just maximising shareholder value, but actually the corporation is taking control of humanity by buying up controlling interests in key assets. For bonus points it should have some sort of ulterior goal - like eugenics or the creation of a new controlling class.

As for how to draw in the PCs - the corp has superior intelligence, so and easy way for it to make money is to create some superscience gadget and sell it as a revolutionary new product. If you want corny 1980's movie style this would be a toy that possesses children and makes them nag their parents into buying more stuff, but it could just as easily be GM food or a streaming video service with added mind control signals. Of course this would be done through a shell company, so the PCs will have to dig their way though layers of clues and mooks to find out about the real big bad.
I like the idea that it's a cabal that is bringing out the intellect. Maybe the board of directors, or a part of the board of directors, has inadvertently become a cabal? Or maybe they're already adepts or mages of some sort and are summoning the intellect. "Look Maxine, I'm the Chairman of the Board, and I say we initiate this meeting of The Cult of the Free Market, the Neo-liberal Knights of the Austrians, by summoning the ideal of corporate personhood. What better way to increase our market share?"

And I'm definitely going for the horror vibe. Considering all the nasty crap that is already in our food and products, it's pretty easy to come up with some addictive and dangerous crap that is spreading. IG Farben is behind a lot of contemporary pharmaceuticals, so if I go with it, I can get access to tons of chemical and pharmaceutical evil-products.
 

Troy Swain

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Validated User
I think the hook could be that the PCs accidentally stumble upon the existence of the AI and know it is out to get them to keep that secret hidden. Things like their bank accounts freezing. Traffic light always turning red on them or suddenly green for the other side as they cross. Finding they are suddenly on the FBI's most wanted list with fraudulent charges.
That's what I want. And it's easy for an AI, but not so easy for a sentient corporation. How would a run-of-the-mill multi-national corporation get access to your bank account? Would it be in collusion with the banks? I like that, but IRL there's way too many working parts and way too many ways to get caught. Same with traffic lights and the most wanted list.

I'm a powerful corporation: now how do I get access to private bank accounts, traffic lights, and the FBI's most wanted list?

It's a hell of a lot easier if it was an AI.
 
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